Why Meditate?

Note: The following is a summary and paraphrasing of Ayya Khema’s Being Nobody, Going Nowhere. Boston, Mass.: Wisdom Publications, 1987. It’s the best book on Buddhism I know of.

Meditation is not something extra. It is not a hobby to be done in our spare time. It is essential to our well-being. We are all sick and meditation is the medicine. Medicine is of no use if we don’t take it. Don’t just read the label, swallow the pill!

Everything is mind-made. Most lives are lived in dreams of the past and the future, good and evil, likes and dislikes, yes or no, mine and yours.

But, the mind can only do one thing at a time. If you are meditating, you cannot do anything else. The dream ends. Thinking stops. Awareness and calm sets in.

Calm is the means. Insight is the end. The means are essential and necessary but they must never be confused with the end. Without calm, we cannot have clarity and insight.

When there’s no one thinking, there’s no ego confirmation. Non cogito ergo non sum. I do not think, therefore I do not exist. If there is no one, how can there be any suffering?

Thinking is suffering no matter what we think. Learn to think what you want to think (or to not think at all) and when one learns that one need never be unhappy again.

Meditation is practicing non-reaction. In meditation, we experience a feeling. We learn to not react to that feeling and then to let go of it. The more skillful we become at not reacting, the quick and easier will be the results. But full attention must be on the use of the tool – not the result.

What is felt in the meditative experience, one knows. What one knows from experience, nobody can dispute. Intellectually, we can know that thoughts and feelings are phantasms. But, if we still react to them as if they are real, do we really know?

There is no substitute for experience. When we see that we don’t need to pay any attention to our thoughts, it becomes easier to drop them. When we see that we don’t have to react to feelings, it is much easier to stop reacting.

Going back to the breath again and again will lead us toward the attainment of calm. Thought is not an intruder trying to bother us. It’s a teacher trying to teach us. As thoughts arise, we can acknowledge them, label them and let them go. Just as we can see a bird, or a robin, recognize it and go back into a larger awareness experiencing being outside.

In the last analysis we are all our own teachers and our own pupils and that is how it should be. But we need to know what to look at in order to be taught by it.

In meditation we have the opportunity to get to know the mind – the thinking that’s going on – and learn not to get involved with it. Most thoughts the mind produces are much better experienced, acknowledged, and dropped.

The Dream Within The Dream

“This is the idea that we are slaves to Empire, and the world is a prison from which we need to free ourselves, what the gnostics called ‘the puny cell of the creator God.’ It is what Dick calls the BIP, the Black Iron Prison, which is opposed to the spiritual redemption of the PTG, the Palm Tree Garden.

Note the emphasis on secrecy. The first secret is that the world is governed by malevolent imperial or governmental elites that form together a kind of a covert coven. The world itself is a college of corporations linked together by money and serving only the interests of their business leaders and shareholders. The second secret — ‘a secret within a secret’ — belongs to those few who have swallowed the red pill, torn through the veil of Maya.”

Simon Critchley, “Philip K. Dick, Sci-Fi Philosopher, Part 2.” The New York Times, May 21, 2012.

I’ve been re-reading Chagdud Tulku’s book, Gates of Buddhist Practice after watching the A Deeper Dive interviews with Bill and Susan Morgan. There are interesting connections between the two.

Bill and Susan talk about how modern life creates a tension, a bombardment of sensory stimulus that can take a long time for us to get free of its influence. Our environment encourages us to cultivate an analytical understanding of our world, to optimize our behaviors to “get things done”. Even when we are engaged in an activity like meditation, it is difficult to focus our attention and our being because our standard is one of doing and thinking.

This ties into another idea I’ve been seeing recently, of the dichotomy between like-minded and like-hearted. The Morgans talk about the importance of integrating body, heart and mind in their practice, and it reminded me of an article that talked about how the Dalai Lama chooses his physician. The first criteria, above medical knowledge and capability, is whether the doctor had a good heart.

This matches with recent research describing the two criteria that people look for when judging others: warmth (heart) and competence (mind). When we focus on the heart, our attention is directed inward, where the world is the stage in which our Being expresses itself.

One metaphor Chugdud uses is windows and mirrors. A worldly person’s experience of the world is like looking through a window. They have sense experience and they judge it in accordance to whether they like it or not. A spiritual person, on the other hand, uses sense experience as a mirror. The world is a reflection of our own minds, and if we look closely, we will discover that there is nothing there that we have not created. Human beings are story tellers, and the stories we tell create both the world and the person experiencing the world.

Chugdud writes:

“In actuality, all experience-whether the suffering of samsara or the bliss of nirvana-is as insubstantial as our dreams. All of it is unreal, untrue. It is an unceasing, luminous, magnificent, and illusionary display.

Our life from birth to death resembles one long dream, and each dream we have at night is the dream within a dream.”

Chagdud Tulku, Gates of Buddhist Practice. Junction City, Calif.: Padma Publishing, 2001.

The dream within a dream comment reminded me of Phillip K. Dick’s (PKD) ideas around The Black Iron Prison, The Palm Tree Garden, ‘a secret within a secret’, and so forth. Consider this talk, Radio Free Valis: Tuning In To the Involution with Philip K. Dick:

“So, in a way what Dick does with his books, from my point of view anyway, is [he] turns the telescope around, out from looking out at external reality and the astronomical magnitudes without, which are no doubt beautiful and amazing, and to be explored, but turns it around, so that we can, along with him, explore the astronomical and galactic magnitudes of our within.”

Instead of a mirror, he is using the metaphor of a telescope. A telescope rather than a microscope because it emphasizes the fact that if we leave behind the constraints of sense experience and open ourselves up to the landscape of imagination that our consciousness can transcend even the limits of our universe, as ideas such as the multiverse and infinite worlds illustrate.

If we spend some time imagining our infinite selves across infinite universes, what then are we to make of our consciousness in this universe? With such an encompassing view, does this me matter beyond the fact of existing and trying to grasp the enormity of all that there is and to be grateful for the opportunity to experience it?

Am not I, too, a fiction, a sliver of a sliver, that has no more relationship to the Truth than fairy tales or Tolkien’s Middle Earth? Unmoored in this fashion, what then are we to do with our lives?

Buddhism suggests that the only worthy use of our lives is using this moment to transcend ourselves, our illusions, and our stories. They are the Black Iron Prison that keep us chained to lesser versions of ourselves.

A Deeper Dive: Reflections on a Four-Year Silent Meditation Retreat

“Wherever we may be in our practice, we’ve all at times asked ourselves: What would it be like if I sat a little longer? Perhaps after our first afternoon, or daylong silent retreat, we thought—’I was really able finally to settle in there and experience stillness. It was powerful, and some interesting thoughts arose. What would sitting two days be like? Or three? What if I did a full week of silent meditation? What deeper levels of insight and compassion might unfold then?’

Few have understood and heeded this call of the cushion quite like Bill and Susan Morgan. For years, this Boston couple, both of whom are meditation teachers and longtime meditators, had been coming to the Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge to sit silent retreats for three months every year. Some years, they have sat for three months straight. For others, they’ve sat for two six-week periods. For several years in a row, they sat in silence for one week each month.

Then, one day in 2009, Susan said to Bill, “I think we should do a deeper dive. Let’s really step out, and go more deeply into the practice.” Her proposal? A two-year silent meditation retreat [that turned into four years].

Interview with Bill and Susan Morgan. “A Deeper Dive: Reflections on a Four-Year Silent Meditation Retreat.” Insight Meditation Society. February 15, 2019.

Living for four years in silent retreat is an experience most of us cannot even imagine. I found the discussion worth a listen. Recommended, particularly if you have any kind of meditation practice.

Alone in the Jungle

“Capitalism will deplete you, while letting you think you have the means to improve your lot. Indeed, it will attempt to force its therapy on you… Anxiety, and especially depression, as the late social critic Mark Fisher noted, often have social causes, but we are led to believe that we suffer individually and must struggle alone. Fisher’s point is that we are prevented from even considering such conditions as social. The treatments on offer, the most common ways to discuss recovery—therapy and pharmaceuticals—are essentially solo journeys that patients undertake. Against this hyper-individualist vision of psychic healing, we do well to highlight Fisher’s core insight that the tools we are given skew how we understand the world and our place in it. Language, typically the most essential method by which we articulate our affective life, can be a most insidious means of our own oppression if co-opted by those who would exploit us.”

—Miya Tokumitsu. “Tell Me It’s Going to be OK.” The Baffler. No. 41. October 2018.

The law of the jungle appeals most to people that don’t live in the jungle.

Three Steps to Self-Compassion

First: Make the choice that you’ll at least try a new approach to thinking about yourself. Commit to treating yourself more kindly — call it letting go of self-judgment, going easier on yourself, practicing self-compassion or whatever resonates most…

…One of the most portable and evidence-based practices for noticing our thoughts and learning to let them go is meditation. Try mindfulness meditation, which involves anchoring your attention on the breath as a tool to stay present without getting lost in judgments, stories and assumptions…

…You can also interrupt the spiral of negative self-talk by focusing your energy on something external that you care about, which can help you establish perspective and a sense of meaning beyond yourself.

The second step to self-compassion is to meet your criticism with kindness. If your inner critic says, “You’re lazy and worthless,” respond with a reminder: “You’re doing your best” or “We all make mistakes.”

But it’s step three, according to Dr. Brewer, that is most important if you want to make the shift sustainable in the long term: Make a deliberate, conscious effort to recognize the difference between how you feel when caught up in self-criticism, and how you feel when you can let go of it”

—Charlotte Leiberman, “Why You Should Stop Being So Hard on Yourself.” The New York Times. May 22, 2018.

2018 Experiments, 1st Quarter Follow-up

New Year resolutions always seem like an exercise in futility. Everyone does them. But, it is difficult to get the social support to make any kind of New Year resolution work. Failure is expected. Starting out in the aftermath of a holiday like New Year’s Eve probably doesn’t help much either.

New Year’s resolutions tend to focus on one big change, and they are rarely conceived in such a way as to accommodate the inevitable failures of implementation that come with trying anything new. And when doing something, you always learn things that differ from our preconceptions when starting out. So, you have to build in some flexibility into your program, and a resolution tends toward absolutes.

All of this is true of the changes I tried to make at the start of 2018. I started in December 2017 trying to eat a ketogenic diet, start a HIIT Burpee and Running Program, and consistently do some form of meditation.

On the ketogenic diet, it is possible to lose a significant amount of weight. Within a few weeks of starting it, I lost just over ten pounds, probably the bulk of it due to water weight.

However, I found it difficult to stick to because eating is such a social activity. Invariably, there was a birthday party, a holiday, or some other social occasion where people encouraged me to come off diet. If I ate one thing, the next comment was, “Well, since you already ate cake, why not have some cookies too?” The holiday season was particularly challenging.

In retrospect, my suggestion is to not tell anyone that you are on a diet, whether it is ketogenic or some other type. As soon as people hear that you are on a diet, I believe social forces kick in, and people will try, likely not even consciously, to bring you back to your default routine. Few people will support your effort, particularly if your diet impacts them in any way.

If you are lucky enough to have a spouse or significant other joining you, it will be much easier to keep on diet. If you are on your own, you’re on your own. Keep a low profile and use excuses like you aren’t feeling well, aren’t hungry, and so forth to skip eating when out. Socializing is a killer of diets. If you like socializing, eat before you go and try to find activities where you are active and not eating.

I haven’t been following a ketogenic diet closely for several weeks. I started again in April, but I plan to keep it low profile. Thankfully, the few people that might read this post don’t care what I eat.

The HIIT Burpee program has been the biggest success thus far. Doing the program is probably another factor in why I am not taking off any weight, quite the opposite actually.

I started with the idea of 12 sets of timed burpees. But, in retrospect, the key issue is not time but the number of burpees per set.

The program probably should just be setting an interval timer with budgeting about 3-5 seconds per burpee in the set and then take a minute rest in between sets. With 12 sets, the whole thing can be done in less than 20 minutes. But, it should be noted that it hurts, and it probably shouldn’t be done more than twice a week.

Start from 1 per set and work your way up. If 12 sets is too much, do 2 rounds of 6 sets or 3 rounds of 4 sets, with 3 to 5 minutes of rest to catch your breath per round. If you do these exercises on concrete, it helps to wear a set of leather work gloves if you don’t want bloody finger tips.

In the beginning of the HIIT program, I also laid off doing any running because the program is punishing. Until you adapt to the program, don’t try to do anything else. I went from 3 per set and a total of 36 burpees to 6 per set with a total of 72 burpees, for the last five weeks. There has been significant increases in tone and muscle, even over this short period. I have missed 3 out of 28 sessions. I think it makes sense to plan for a week off every quarter, which wasn’t in my original plan. I am going to start trying to work in some running sessions this quarter.

As for meditation, I did manage to do around 50 consecutive days of meditation. Overall, I think it is a good practice. However, I had problems with my android phone I was using to time the individual sessions, and thereafter, I haven’t been regularly doing it.

The problem with my phone ended up being an opportunity. I learned how to get an inexpensive phone set-up with LineageOS. Then, I used the same idea and changed my primary computing platform, buying an old ASUS 201 laptop with bad wi-fi and adding a usb wi-fi adapter and installing Libreboot and Parabola Linux, all for $83.

Parabola is an Arch distribution, which took some getting used to changing from Debian. But, it was not too bad a transition. I find I spend more time on the command line and associated tools in it, e.g., this post was written in Emacs and posted to cafebedouin.org using org2blog. Hopefully, the org2blog set-up will help me to write more original content for cafebedouin.org.

Also I also am trying to stick to a reading list. I have been putting any new books I hear about on a preliminary list for next year rather than trying to read them. I haven’t really been reading much over this quarter. I have been sidetracked on a series of other projects. But, today, I am recommitting to reading and writing more, doing daily meditation, twice a week physical training, and eating better. I’ll follow-up in three months, and we’ll see how it goes.

2018 Experiment: Daily Meditation

Background:

“Mere intellectual understanding is not enough. It is not by leaving the doctor’s prescription by the bedside or learning it by heart that we are cured. We must integrate what we have learned so that our understanding becomes intimately bound up into our mind’s flow. Then, it ceases to be theory and becomes self-transformation. Indeed, as we’ve seen, that is the meaning of the word: meditation: familiarization with a new way of being we can familiarize ourselves with all sorts of positive qualities in this way — kindness, patient, tolerance — and continue to develop through meditation.”

—Matthieu Ricard, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2017.

Meditation is popular. Tim Ferris informs us in his book, Tools for Titans, that 80% of the +200 people he interviewed for the book have “some form of guided-meditation practice.” Physicians have developed an eight week plan of guided meditation that they have used in clinical trials to treat depression. Neuroscientists studying long-term meditators think that meditation involves temporal integrative mechanisms that can change the connections of neurons and the brain itself. Many different religious traditions have established meditation practices, whether it is the reading of the Psalms to the whirling dervishes of Sufism. The overwhelming consensus seems to be that some form of meditation is good for you.

In our society, our focus is often on utility. Will meditation make me more effective? Will it keep me healthy? Will it help me to manage pain? What can it do for me?

In the Zen tradition, there is sometimes talk of five stages/styles of Zen:

  1. Bompu Zen or “Usual Zen” is meditation undertaken for utilitarian reasons, such as increased personal effectiveness, the ability to focus, enhanced mood, etc.
  2. Gedo Zen or “Outside Way” is meditation used as a spiritual exercise, particularly for any religious tradition that is not Buddhist.
  3. Shojo Zen or “Practice of Jhana” is meditation to reach enlightenment for oneself.
  4. Daiju Zen or “Great Practice Zen” is meditation made for the benefit and eventual enlightenment of all sentient beings.
  5. Saijojo Zen or “Great and Perfect Practice Zen” is, as far as I can tell, meditation for the sake of meditation, without striving for any particular result.

All of these reasons seem like good entry points into meditation practice. For my purposes, this experiment is not attempting to achieve any particular result other than to develop a consistent meditation practice and document some of the experiences in making the attempt to practice every day over the course of one year, while holding out the possibility of extending the attempt further into the future.

Methods:

“If you practice regularly for only five or ten minutes a day, without straining your body, you will soon want to extend the time you spend in sitting because of the increased feeling of bodily health as well as the great peace of mind that you will enjoy. Once you begin to experience bodily discomfort, stop sitting; otherwise, you will grow tired of doing Zazen [meditation] and come to dread the time when you think you should be doing it…Even in a big monastery, one does not normally sit for longer than forty-five minutes at a time without a short break. This is because the strain of keeping the mind taut at the beginning is very great, and this lessens the value of the actual sitting. Five to ten minutes done really well is worth a whole day done badly.”

—Jiyu Kennett, Selling Water by the River: A Manual of Zen Training. New York, Pantheon Books, 1972.

I am committing to doing at least one session of 25 minutes every day in the coming year. If desired and possible on any particular day, I will either do multiple sessions or do longer sessions of no longer than 50 minutes. I will use the Meditation Assistant app [F-Droid or Play] as both a mediation timer and log for my meditation sessions.

I will use the standard practices outlined as exercises in Ricard’s Happiness as a starting off point to focus my meditation practice. I will also look into other sources for understanding meditation, whether from traditional sutras, contemporary commenters such as Ayya KhemaChagdud TulkuSharon Salzberg, etc. or other sources, particularly those in the Zen tradition.

I will also write a weekly summary of practice for myself including: questions that come to mind, trouble spots, failures to practice, etc. Anything I find particularly interesting I will post to this blog. Quarterly, I will briefly summarize my experience and edit the results section to reflect my experience. At the end of the experiment, I plan on discussing the experiment and provide some conclusions, if there are any.

Results: TBD.

Discussion: TBD.

Conclusions: TDB.

Biohacking: Smart People With Money Being Science-Based and Stupid 

“Over the last 4–5 years, my main hobby has been to get that by hacking my body and mind using a logical, science-based approach…

…People like me will be able to pay for this out of pocket and use off-label prescriptions from private doctors who focus on upgrading and prevention rather than merely healing. Downstream the extra mood, energy, focus, health, willpower and social skills — enhanced over decades — will accrue further and further advantages to people who upgrade themselves, which will lead to a cycle of further concentration of wealth.”

—Serge Faguet, “I’m 32 and spent $200k on biohacking. Became calmer, thinner, extroverted, healthier & happier.hackernoon.com. September 25, 2017.

N of 1 experimentation is valuable. The problem in this case is he is arguing hockey stick, compounding returns when the more likely scenario is that he’s going to give himself some form of chronic illness over the long-term. You’re only 32. Do you believe 40 years of thyroid supplementation isn’t going to lead to a health problem?

There is useful advice in write-ups such as this one. Thinking about sleep hygiene, eliminating sugar from your diet, intermittent fasting, weight-training built around deadlifts and squats, HITT training for cardio, meditation/cognitive therapy are probably all good ideas.

The place it goes off the rails is with medications and supplements. A low dose of 5mg of lithium is probably alright. If you take ~100-150mg as he is, you better have normal kidney function. Magnesium supplementation is also probably a good idea, since most of us aren’t eating big leafy vegetables at the same rate our ancestors did.

I could even get behind the very occasional therapeutic use of psychoactive compounds such as MDMA, psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, etc. If they were used to to augment a program of meditation and periodic hours in an isolation tank.

But hormone therapy? Playing sorcerer’s apprentice with your hormones strikes me as a singularly bad idea.

Meditation: Familiarization With a New Way of Being

“Mere intellectual understanding is not  enough. It is not by leaving the doctor’s prescription by the bedside or learning it by heart that we are cured. We must integrate what we have learned so that our understanding becomes intimately bound up into our mind’s flow. Then it ceases to be theory and becomes self-transformation. Indeed, as we’ve seen, that is the meaning of the word meditation: familiarization with a new way of being. We can familiarize ourselves with all sorts of positive qualities in this way — kindness, patience, tolerance — and continue to develop them through meditation.”

—Ricard, Matthieu. “Happiness: A Guide for Developing Life’s Most Important Skill.” New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2003.